Sierra Community Theatre manager Dustin Gustoff unrolls an advance poster the theater received months ago for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” The latest in the “Star Wars” saga opens nationally Dec. 18, and is expected to break box-office records. The single-screen Sierra, however, won’t be among the theaters playing it on opening day due to demands from the Walt Disney Co. Disney bought the “Star Wars” franchise in 2012 for $4.1 billion.Harrison Ford reprises his role as Han Solo after 32 years, making “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” the year’s most anticipated movie.

The Empire strikes back

Will the new ‘Star Wars’ come to Jefferson? The Sierra Community Theatre fears the worst


I thought I liked Disney.

When the Walt Disney Co. snatched up the Muppets, then Marvel Comics, then the “Star Wars” franchise, I was cautiously optimistic that Disney would be a good steward of, well, basically my entire childhood.

But after visiting last week at the Sierra Community Theatre with manager Dustin Gustoff, I’m starting to see an eerie parallel between Disney and the Galactic Empire.

First things first, does Epcot remind anyone else of the Death Star?

Then to hear of Gustoff’s recent negotiations with Disney to bring “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” to Jefferson next month, it’s all I can do not to envision a Disney-esque twist to every famous “Star Wars” scene.

Like that scene aboard the Death Star where the Imperial officer taunts Darth Vader by saying, “Don’t try to frighten us with your sorcerer’s ways.”

Now all I can picture is Mickey Mouse standing there in his blue wizard hat from “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment of “Fantasia,” his white-gloved hand extended, choking the poor guy with only his thoughts.

“Golly,” Mickey chuckles, “I find your lack of faith disturbing.”

It’s actually a pretty good analogy, too, for Gustoff’s recent dealings with Disney.

Unless you’ve been frozen in carbonite, you’ve heard there’s a new “Star Wars” movie — Episode VII, to those of us in the know — set for release a month from Wednesday.

I know last week I wrote a front-page story about “Star Trek.” Now this week comes a front-page story about “Star Wars.” (If you’re lucky, next week’s paper will be all about “Doctor Who.”)

But when it comes to “Star Wars,” dismissing it as geek culture is to dismiss one of the biggest business stories of the year.

As far back as August, Deadline Hollywood predicted the real possibility of a $615 million global opening weekend for “The Force Awakens,” making it the top-grossing opening of all-time.

Each step of the movie’s promotional campaign has generated great disturbances in my Facebook news feed.

Back on Sept. 4, “Force Friday” saw the launch of a dizzying array of new “Star Wars” consumer products. (Every time I walk through, say, Target, even I begin to wonder, “Is it possible to have too much ‘Star Wars’ stuff?”)

The premiere of a new trailer Oct. 19 during halftime of “Monday Night Football” (on Disney-owned ESPN, mind you) not only made “Monday Night Football” relevant for the first time in years, it also single-handedly spiked ratings 13 percent, according to Deadline.

Within 24 hours, the trailer went on to be viewed online 112 million times.

So it goes without saying that the pressure is on Gustoff to get “The Force Awakens” at the Sierra.

“I’ve had people message me on Facebook. I’ve had people call,” he explained, describing the pressure, which essentially amounts to having a Jawa on your back.


The new “Star Wars” won’t be here when it opens on Dec. 18.

In fact, “The Force Awakens” may not ever play in Jefferson.

“They may not let us play it,” Gustoff said of Disney.

I know, I know.

To quote Obi-Wan, “I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.”

I’ll pause for a second so you can collect yourself.

To understand it, you have to possess an understanding of what it’s like to be the guy who books the movies for our community-owned, single-screen theater.

When the Sierra made the jump in November 2012 from part of the Fridley Theatres chain to a community nonprofit, Gustoff was retained as manager.

But, admittedly, even he didn’t know how booking worked.

“I always thought like everyone else, ‘Why are we never getting any good movies?’ It’s something you don’t realize until you’re in the position of booking the movies,” he explained.

When that task finally fell to him, he did what any of us might do — he started calling the studios in Hollywood. (What Obi-Wan said of the Mos Eisley spaceport applies here: “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”)

At Disney, Gustoff asked to speak with someone about booking movies. Without a name, though, the operator wouldn’t transfer him.

In one final display of passive-aggressiveness, the operator would end every call, he said, by saying, “Have a magical day.”

Gustoff finally resorted to calling his old bosses at Fridley to get this individual’s coveted name.

That’s the kind of stuff Gustoff puts up with on a daily basis.

So now picture him on the phone with Disney asking to get the year’s most-anticipated movie, “The Force Awakens.”

Part of what makes this new “Star Wars” such a big deal is the return of Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher to the franchise for the first time in 32 years.

As Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, respectively, they have a proven, history-making track record at the box office.

Never you mind the fact that Ford is now 73 — a full decade older than Alec Guinness was in 1977, when Han Solo refers to Obi-Wan as an “old fossil.”

When adjusted for inflation, the original “Star Wars” in 1977 is the second top-grossing film of all-time (behind “Gone With the Wind”), with an adjusted gross of nearly $1.5 billion.

The other two movies in the original trilogy, 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back” and 1983’s “Return of the Jedi,” are still well within the top 20 as well.

The movies firmly entrenched themselves in our culture so quickly that even The Jefferson Bee ran a front-page photo of Obi-Wan and Darth Vader dueling with their “laser swords,” which accompanied a Page 1 write-up about the movie’s popularity locally, in August 1977.

Jefferson got the original “Star Wars” about a month after it opened nationally.

The digital era, however, has allowed the Sierra to open the kinds of blockbusters we historically would have gone to Des Moines to see out of sheer impatience.

For its part, Disney was willing to give “The Force Awakens” to the Sierra on opening day, Gustoff said, considering the movie is likely to open Dec. 18 on more than 4,000 U.S. screens.

The Sierra, if you’re keeping score, is ranked No. 4,000, Gustoff said.

But then came the catch: It must play, and play alone, for a minimum of four weeks.

Once again, there’s a corresponding “Star Wars” quote.

“This deal is getting worse all the time,” as Lando Calrissian griped in “The Empire Strikes Back” about getting in bed with the Galactic Empire.

“It’s just too much,” Gustoff complained. “Three weeks is hard enough.”

In order to open new releases along with the rest of America, the Sierra typically has to commit to playing a movie for three weeks.

The first week’s attendance at a movie like “Iron Man 3” is good, Gustoff said.

The second week does about 30 percent to 50 percent of the first week’s business.

By the third week, “It’s pretty much like 50 people,” Gustoff said.

Four weeks would simply seem to be the straw that broke the tauntaun’s back.

“I can’t justify holding a movie for just about a month,” he said.

The single-screen Sierra couldn’t play anything else during those four weeks “without express permission from Disney,” Gustoff said, “and they’re not going to give it.”

“Disney’s mostly always been tough to work with,” he said. “They have clout. They know what they’re doing.”

A year ago, he tussled with Disney for three months over the animated “Big Hero 6.”

“I didn’t hear until about a week before the movie came out,” Gustoff said. “It was a no.”

With “Star Wars,” Gustoff sought advice from the National Association of Theatre Owners, or NATO, who advised him there wasn’t anything he could do.

“I’m so torqued. I’m a huge ‘Star Wars’ fan,” he said.

But because Gustoff didn’t want to be known as the guy who refused “The Force Awakens,” he made the rare decision to take it to the Sierra’s board.

“I couldn’t leave it up to myself,” he said.

“I left it to the board almost hoping.”

The board agreed that four weeks was one week too much.

Then, in an act of ruthlessness that would leave even Darth Vader astonished, the Disney rep reportedly told Gustoff that if the Sierra doesn’t open “The Force Awakens,” it won’t get it at all.

He can only hope it was a scare tactic.

“As of right now,” he said, “it doesn’t sound like they’re going to allow non-openers.”

Instead, on Dec. 18, the Sierra will call Disney’s bluff and open “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip” for two weeks.

Gustoff is at peace with the decision not to open the new “Star Wars.”

“I’m going to go out of town to see it,” he said, “and, honestly, most people will.”

Besides, he’s busy planning the Sierra’s second annual Classics Week fundraiser set for Jan. 15-21.

The film lineup is still in the works, but for sure will include 1965’s “Doctor Zhivago” and a John Wayne Western (possibly a John Wayne double-feature).

Gustoff also had settled on “Swiss Family Robinson,” Disney’s 55-year-old, live-action classic about a family shipwrecked on a deserted island.

But just as we were talking last week at the theater, an email arrived on his phone from the Disney rep.

The Sierra can no longer have “Swiss Family Robinson” or any older Disney film for that matter, the rep informed him, because the studio’s vast back catalog is no longer available to theaters that show first-run movies.

The Empire strikes back, indeed.

Gustoff could only shake his head in frustration.

“I should email her back, ‘Thanks, I’m having a magical day,’ ” he cracked.

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